Deal With Bouchard Could Save Team!

by Sean Gordon

Expos ownership and the Quebec government last night cobbled together the beginnings of a bailout plan for the team that, if successful, promises to be both commercially viable and politically palatable.

Team officials and high government officials - including Premier Lucien Bouchard and Finance Minister Bernard Landry - spent two hours haggling in Bouchard's Quebec City office before emerging to announce the framework for a deal to keep the beleaguered Expos in Montreal.
"In baseball, part of scoring is making sure we stay in the batter's box. We've been swinging and swinging for the last six months, and you have to hit a lot of foul balls to stay in the box. Maybe today we got a good pitch," said Expos chairman Jacques Menard.
"I think today we have a ray of hope that's pretty significant, that indeed perhaps we can go forward on some basis that'll give our fans a chance to be optimistic about the future."

Under the tentative deal, the government would chip in between $7 million and $8 million annually in existing tourism funds.

That influx of cash - and perhaps more important, the symbolic support of the Quebec government - would allow the ownership group to finance a $100-million loan to build a new stadium.

Once the stadium was built, the Expos would sign a 20-year lease providing for heavy penalties should the team skip town.
"We're not creating new money. We're not injecting new money. We're just displacing money," said Landry. "It's about the rate of interest they pay each year for (a $100-million) loan. We are not the lender or the guarantor." Indeed, if the team were to leave, the province's financial commitment would evaporate "in the slightest fraction of a second," Landry said.

In achieving this balance, the team can cite the government's commitment to keeping the team, and the government can say it is helping without diverting any funds whatsoever from health, education and other priorities.

Both sides were careful to point out the ifs and maybes, but from the calm demeanour of both team and government officials, it seems the key compromise has been reached.

Menard said the team and government mandarins will spend the next week to 10 days working out the details of the arrangement, so it can be presented to Major League Baseball.
"For the sake of giving us the best chance of succeeding, and not to make any faux pas, frankly, it's best not to go into the minute details," Menard said.

In reaching an agreement to give some financial assistance to the ball club without risking a political hiding from doctors, teachers and public-sector unions, Landry found a clever out.

Calling the team an "important instrument of tourism promotion," Landry quoted a study from economist Pierre Fortin that concludes the Expos bring in $15 million annually in tourist dollars and enhance the city's international recognition. Landry added, however, that the government is more conservative in its estimates of the economic spin-offs of Major League Baseball in Montreal.
"The team has prepared a business plan, and they have investors, they have more money than they did, they have tightened some parameters, so that plan will be examined with a lot of care," he said. "There is a certain coherence to this plan, so contrary to the first meeting, the government is not closing the door."

In effect, the province kicks in no new money, yet the team is given the means to go out and borrow the money it needs to complete the financing of a new downtown stadium.

In all, the partnership will have to borrow about $100 million, or find new investors to build the outdoor park. About $35 million has been raised through seat licenses for the new diamond, and the team is trying to broker a deal for the land near the Molson Centre on which the $175-million stadium would be erected.

Menard said the Expos partnership, bolstered last month with the addition of Jeffrey Loria, a New York art dealer, and Loblaw, the grocery-store giant, is willing to dilute its stake by 50 per cent to attract further investment. The consortium already has raised $100 million, and it is budgeting a further $25 million to buy out current team president and managing partner Claude Brochu.

Brochu was the forgotten man in yesterday's tumult, receiving a subtle swipe from Landry, who said the tenor of last night's meeting was "radically different" from that of a similar sit-down last fall between the government and Brochu.

Major League Baseball set a deadline of March 6 for the team to get its fiscal house in order, and though that deadline is now a memory, it appears it isn't too late to keep the team from moving.

Menard said the financial affairs are in better shape than even two months ago, with the team able to pick up the tab for accumulated operating losses (about $70 million) and the cost of moving out of the Olympic Stadium and into a new ball park (said to be $40 million).

"There's a lot of work left to do, but a lot less than there was this time last week."



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